BRAZIL/USA: Sammy Davis, Jr Sings, Laurindo Almeida Plays - Sammy Davis, Jr & Laurindo Almeida
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Beautiful singing and gorgeous acoustic guitar playing - what more do you need?
What do we mean when we pick an album as album of the week on this website? It usually means that the album in question has made a profound impression in some way or other on the reviewer. Whether it be my inability to pick a hole in the nearly two hour long album (well, two albums, but let’s not get into that now) The Princess by Parov Stelar, or Danny’s moonlight enlightenment to the genius of Leonard Cohen while listening to You Want It Darker, the albums in question often have an X factor (not that one) that is rather woolly and somewhat unable to be defined. In fact, it is even defined by our inability to define it. We often say we know an album of the week when we hear one, but what exactly it is that we hear, is hard to say. Laurindo Almeida and Sammy Davis Jr’s collaboration album, imaginatively titled Sammy Davis Jr Sings and Laurindo Almeida Plays, is an album entirely of covers, and the instrumentation mostly consists of Almeida’s guitar playing and Davis’s voice, as indicated by the title. And that’s it. Yet somehow, it’s a glorious celebration of music and jazz, cutting it down to its simplest expression, and in doing so exalting it to the highest level.
“..it’s so compulsively listenable and plain beautiful that I would find it strange if it did not charm anyone and everyone at least a little bit.”
It is unusual that an album of covers would make it onto our album of the week section, as usually we liked to pick artists that express themselves in their own words (or music, if it’s an instrumental album), but we must also acknowledge that music wasn’t always like this. Sammy Davis Jr came from a time where people did not really write their own songs very much. There were some artists who did write some or all of their own material, of course, like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, but until The Beatles came along and changed that, more often than not there were songwriters and singers, and Sammy Davis Jr was firmly in the latter category. Even so, I was not aware of his work before this album. In fact, all I really knew about him was that he was a convert to my own faith, Judaism. He is a popular figure in American culture, and gets referenced a lot, from things like Goodfellas to The Simpsons (in the latter, he is mentioned in a crucial scene in the episode Like Father Like Clown, where Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, the orthodox and traditionalist father of Krusty the Clown, who won’t accept his son’s chosen profession, and Bart quotes Davis’s autobiography as a way of proving that entertainers can be profound; it is an excellent episode, and a touching portrayal of Jewish identity, and a high point of the show’s golden era, but enough of that), and from this album, I can see why he is so remembered and beloved as an entertainer. The man’s got a voice and a half.
When it comes to the other half of the album, Laurindo Almeida, I hadn’t even heard of him before this, but since listening I have found out that he is a bossa nova pioneer from Brazil, and is a well-respected guitar performer. I’m a sucker for good guitar playing, and this has some absolutely gorgeous acoustic playing from Almeida. The two halves combine excellently. Davis’s voice is just amazing, so soft and smooth, and the guitar playing from Almeida is the perfect accompaniment. And that is basically it for the album. If you start listening to it, and don’t click with its style, it probably won’t be the album for you as it does not change tack at any point throughout. That said, it’s so compulsively listenable and plain beautiful that I would find it strange if it did not charm anyone and everyone at least a little bit. It certainly isn’t the music I usually like or listen to, but I was won over by the sheer classiness on display. You could perhaps criticise the ambition of the album – this is very much an album by two men in their musical comfort zone – but that would be to miss the wood for the trees. Sure, it’s all of a piece, but it’s so carefully put together, so lovingly crafted that it is a thing of joy to hear. I can’t even really single out a best or worst song; it all comes together as a charmingly satisfying whole piece of music.